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Jeff Ballard: A Life In Music

Renato Wardle By

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Jeff BallardFor some jazz musicians, it seems as though they explode onto the scene virtually from the first day they pick up their instrument, and then proceed to land a huge name gig and the rest is history (or they are, after their 15 minutes). Other musicians spend a lifetime building and honing their craft. One gig leads to the next, one experience preparing them for the following one. Such is the case for master drummer Jeff Ballard.

Ballard's gigs have ranged from pianist Chick Corea, bassist Ray Brown, and composer/arranger Maria Schneider to bassists Avishai Cohen and Ben Allison, Circus Vargas and, for the past couple of years, Brad Mehldau's trio. His special brand of honed musical instincts is in demand, and for good reason. There are tours coming up with his collaborative trio Fly—featuring saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Larry Grenadier—and with Mehldau's trio featuring guitarist Pat Metheny. There's a new record from Metheny/Mehldau and a new record in the works for Fly as well.

Jeff Ballard is as busy as they come. Why? Jeff Ballard makes all the right choices, at the right moment—musical and otherwise.

All About Jazz: To begin with, where are you from?

Jeff Ballard: I was born in southern California but I grew up in Santa Cruz, California.

AAJ: The Bay Area.

JB: About half hour south from San Jose, exactly.

AAJ: What were some of your earliest musical experiences? How did music figure into your childhood?

JB: Music came into my life through my father who played some drums back when he was in the army. He has a great love of jazz, but he wasn't playing professionally or anything. It was just his having all that music around you know. He had a wide interest in music. But most of the stuff I heard through him were things like Count Basie's big band or a lot of Oscar Peterson and some Duke [Ellington]. And also some Brazilian music too. He was really into Sergio Mendes' Brasil '66 (A&M, 1966) and things like that at the time. That kind of music was always of around.

AAJ: Was there a lot of music going on in the town where you grew up?

JB: Santa Cruz, yeah it really started coming into my consciousness strongly as something I wanted to do, later on in high school. So I started taking lessons when I was, what, a sophomore in high school. So I took a year of private lessons.

AAJ: Is high school when you really got serious about playing the drums?

JB: Yeah, the seriousness turned at that point. Like making the decision whether or not to do it. I liked baseball a lot so I was playing a lot. But because of the way it was with the coach I couldn't miss any practices and I had these drum lessons once a week which were important to me too. So I actually did make that choice and say, "Well, let me go with this instead."

AAJ: That's a rough choice for a kid to make.

JB: Yeah. I think that I didn't have that strong drive of competitiveness, that kind of turned me off, that hyped-up competitive streak. I like a good game but this didn't have that to it.

AAJ: With music there is certainly more room to express your individuality.

JB: [laughs] Yeah, that's for sure.

AAJ: Even as a kid. What with the teams, the coach/drill sergeant thing, it was certainly the case with me as kid as well.

JB: Yeah, and also I felt like sometimes there was this....I don't know if it was a belittling. Like you said, this hard, regimented thing.

AAJ: They feel like they have to beat you down to build you back up.

JB: Something like that, yeah. And the band was much warmer, you know, the band room had a much warmer feeling.

AAJ: Probably smelled better too.

JB: Well, probably so yeah. [laughs]

AAJ: Well, how old were you when you got your first set of drums?

JB: Let's see. The first real set, I would say fourteen, fifteen, something like that.

AAJ: Now when you first got that set of drums, who was the first drummer that influenced you.

JB: I remember watching my dad play at the house, but Joe Morello was the first drummer that I really heard that really stuck to me. Its was from Dave Brubeck's, Time Further Out (Columbia, 1961). And there was a moment in this one cut, "Far More Drums" it's called, which was pretty much just a head and then all drum solo. And there was one moment in particular that was real strong. Joe hit the cymbal, it was an open cymbal hit and then as he choked it, he went up on and into the bell of his cymbal. So it was like the cymbal made this curve, it had this nice morphing sound to it and I thought it was really hip. So I remember that. Just getting really turned on by that. And the solo itself—all tom toms. He wasn't playing with the snares on either on that solo. It was exciting, real hip.

Plus listening to lots of Sonny Payne with Basie—that was just very exciting. And I heard a lot of Ed Thigpen too. Those are some great first impressions of drummers. Also, another record that was very cool for me was a live [vibraphonist] Terry Gibbs big band record with Mel Lewis playing drums. I would play along with all of these records. Super great.

AAJ: So these were records in your Dad's record collection, not so much ones that you went out and purchased yourself?

JB: Exactly. I was floating with what was there. That and one other record that my grandfather had of Sinatra and Basie, Sinatra at The Sands (Reprise, 1966), and that was really great too. And again that was Sonny Payne on drums.

AAJ: So were you attracted to vocal jazz? A lot of kids who connect with jazz are attracted more instrumental jazz featuring a lot of drums. But with Sinatra and Basie's Sinatra At The Sands, that record would certainly stick out and be more unique for a drummer.

JB: Yeah, but I think because it was a big dose of the big band arrangements of Quincy Jones. And Frank is what you'd call a real musician/singer. It was the instrumental side of it all that was really attractive to me. Later I was turned onto to the band Chicago. That was hip. And then there was a moment of listening to KISS a lot. James Taylor. Earth, Wind, and Fire. Jim Croce. Though most of all of that is great. Still it was something about the hipness that was in jazz. Something else was calling with that, you know?

AAJ: So right out of the gate with jazz music and then you pretty much stayed in that vein ever since.

JB: Yeah, and by changing schools a few times early on, maybe three or four times we moved and they'd say you know, "Well, what did you do in the last school?" and I'd say, "Well, I was in band." So the music stayed with me and I liked the people that were musicians, I mean they were all my friends.

AAJ: How encouraging were you parents with music?

JB: Oh great. They were letting me go. My dad had the mantra, "You know you have to practice. If you want to do this you have to practice. If you want the drums and you wanna do this, if you want the lessons, you have to practice. They were very supportive, though my mom was a bit nervous about my making a living doing it you know. But that wasn't even in my mind back then, it was just doing it and having fun.

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